Infrastructure permitting reform plan blocked in Senate

Oct. 3, 2022
A permitting reform plan for energy infrastructure was blocked in the Senate Sept. 27 when Republicans dug in their heels over what they described as weak and partisan legislation.

A permitting reform plan for energy infrastructure was blocked in the Senate Sept. 27 when Republicans dug in their heels over what they described as weak and partisan legislation.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) said the Senate would try again before yearend.

The plan, negotiated by Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) in discussions with Schumer and other Democrats, was written mostly by Manchin with the idea of easing the permitting of oil and gas pipelines and especially the Mountain Valley natural gas pipeline, which originates in Manchin’s home state and is stalled by litigation (OGJ Online, Sept. 22, 2022).

But Republicans saw the plan as far too little, and Senate Minority Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) expressed frustration at having been excluded from negotiations. He called the permitting reform provisions a poison pill.

“The poison bill is a phony attempt to address an important topic of permitting reform. It is much too difficult to build things in America and unleash American energy. Liberal regulations and red tape are a huge, huge part of the problem,” McConnell told the Senate.

McConnell then called the Manchin provisions a fig leaf, a “reform in name only” that would set back the cause of real reform.

“Senator Manchin’s bill goes out of its way to avoid actually amending the National Environmental Policy Act or any other environmental law,” McConnell said. “It layers new bureaucracy on top of existing bureaucracy. Its new requirements and deadlines are paper tigers,” he said, implying those requirements lacked enforcement authority.

Teetering on a brink

The Manchin plan, dubbed the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2022, was attached to a continuing resolution needed to maintain federal funding beyond the Sept. 30 end of the federal fiscal year.

Schumer, taking to the Senate floor in the afternoon of Sept. 27, said Republicans had made it very clear they would block the continuing resolution if it included Manchin’s permitting reform, and the lack of such a resolution would mean a government shutdown.

“Senator Manchin has requested, and I have agreed to move forward and pass the recently filed continuing resolution legislation without the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2022,” Schumer said.

“Senator Manchin, myself and others will continue to have conversations about the best way to ensure responsible permitting reform is passed before the end of the year,” Schumer said.

There was almost no time left for maneuvering in this fiscal year. The Senate needed to pass a cloture vote to end debate on the continuing resolution, then perhaps on Sept. 28 hold a final vote on passage, after which the House would need to pass the bill, possibly Sept. 29, and President Biden would need to sign it.

Opposition elsewhere

State officials disliked some of what was in the permitting reform. McConnell said a letter from state attorneys general said Manchin’s legislative language would “eviscerate states’ ability to chart their own land use and energy policies.”

That may have been a reference more to the electricity transmission provisions than the pipeline provisions in the plan, though state officials protective of their authority could have opposed both sets of provisions.

In the House, Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), a leader of opposition to Manchin’s plan, welcomed its demise and indicated his interest is in reducing fossil fuel use, not easing its permitting.

“Now that the debate over this dirty deal is over, I stand ready to work constructively with my colleagues on other permitting legislative efforts that can accelerate the clean energy transition,” Grijalva said.